The Pharisee and the Tax Collector

Reflections on the Readings for Sunday 24 October 2010

Sirach 35:12-14, 16-18; Psalm 34:2-3, 17-19, 23; 2 Timothy 4:6-8, 16-18; Luke 18:9-14

How are we to read the biblical passages which proclaim that God is on the side of justice, that God hears the cries of the poor and the oppressed? It does not seem to describe reality. I see justice in short supply and the poorest being made to suffer for the greed and mistakes of the rich and powerful. In my lived experience, the reign of the God of justice is observed patchily at best. How then do we live by the truth expounded by the sage and celebrated in the psalm?

For a start, the affirmation of God’s justice can challenge our own values. How can we praise God for hearing the cry of the poor and then block our own ears? It can also shape our vision and direct our energies. When we work for justice and with compassion we work alongside God and empowered by God’s Spirit. Where these are scorned and neglected God’s will is being thwarted, even when it is done in the name of God and the Church. Whose voice do we listen for -the influential or the poor?

But these verses are more than a spur to right living; they are also hopeful words. If the rest of the world turns a deaf ear, those who are oppressed and hard done by can hold on to the truth that God hears, and that ultimately justice will be done. Paul embodies this hopeful confidence. He has lived his life for God’s approval and knows that as he faces impending death he can entrust himself to the Lord, the just judge, who will reward him for his efforts. That hope enables Paul to keep going, even when he is deserted by friends. Paul seems content to receive his justice beyond the grave.

The prayer of the tax collector in Jesus’ story is the cry which is heard by God. But hang on, tax collectors aren’t poor. In Jesus’ day they were the collaborators who worked with the Roman occupying force to collect heavy taxes from the people. Surely it is their victim’s prayers who should be heard by God? We like the notion that God hears the prayer of the poor, but of someone who benefits by actively collaborating with the oppressor … ?! And yet he is the hero of Jesus’ parable. The Pharisee’s religious pursuits have lulled him into self-righteousness. The tax collector whose very livelihood exploits oppression for gain is the one who realises how desperately he needs God’s mercy. In our pursuit of justice, let us beware self-righteousness. When we become aware of how complicit we are in unjust systems, let us not despair. The heartfelt cry for help is the one that God hears.

The text of Sirach 35:12-14, 16-18 [NAB] for those who do not have it in their bibles:

The LORD is a God of justice,
who knows no favorites.
Though not unduly partial toward the weak,
yet he hears the cry of the oppressed.
The Lord is not deaf to the wail of the orphan,
nor to the widow when she pours out her complaint.
The one who serves God willingly is heard;
his petition reaches the heavens.
The prayer of the lowly pierces the clouds;
it does not rest till it reaches its goal,
nor will it withdraw till the Most High responds,
judges justly and affirms the right,
and the Lord will not delay.

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About Jessie Rogers

I'm a Scripture scholar and Godly Play practitioner living in Ireland.
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